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Mother of All Monsters

There’s something monstrous about living without responsibilities to others. That’s the clearest theme of Colossal, the new film starring Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an alcoholic piecing her life together while discovering a strange connection to a giant monster wreaking havoc in Seoul, South Korea. The film, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, uses the kaiju genre (Godzilla and its progeny) to meditate on addiction, self-loathing, and toxic friendships. Yet the film is also telling a geopolitical story with a satiric edge: it’s a giant monster film for the era of drone warfare.

Hathaway’s Gloria is a hard-partying wreck, an unemployed Manhattanite culture writer whom we meet in the process of getting kicked out of her fed-up boyfriend’s apartment. Her lifestyle is portrayed as anything but glamorous; in a running gag, Gloria wakes up after having passed out drunk on some floor and winces at the aches and cricks she’s accrued. With nowhere else to stay, Gloria crashes at her parents’ empty house in her old, empty-ish hometown and repeatedly stumbles, drunk, through a playground at 8:05 am. The news is soon abuzz with stories of a massive reptilian creature wreaking havoc and piling up casualties in Seoul, and Gloria recognizes the monster’s movements as her own. Somehow, when she enters the playground at that exact time, a colossal doppelganger materializes on the other side of the globe and reproduces her teetering steps. The world-shaking consequences of her actions give Gloria, at last, a sense of responsibility. She makes the monster write a message in the dirt of Seoul that doubles as a mantra of guilt and recovery: “I’m sorry. It was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”

Gloria’s frenemy and foil is Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood acquaintance who offers Gloria a job at his bar, then discovers he has a similar ability—a giant robot manifests in Seoul when he enters the playground—and fewer compunctions about using it. Oscar’s descent into villainy is punctuated with apologies. He fills Gloria’s empty house with furniture, but also pressures her to drink after she quits. Sudeikis marshals all his amiable guy-next-door appeal, then lets that curdle in a cocktail of jealousy and possessiveness. Soon he’s threatening to stomp all over the playground if Gloria defies him, seemingly unconcerned with the human cost to Seoul. A man of Middle America, he’s lost any sense of significance in his life, and is willing to treat other lives as insignificant to get that back.

The film swings from playful banter to life-and-death conflicts and back. Though it is primarily about this duo of characters and their arcs of dysfunction and responsibility, the protagonists’ towering alter egos give the movie global scope and stakes.

Is the location of the monster and robot’s stomping ground a reference to Godzilla’s long history of trashing Asian metropolises? Or is there a political undertone to oversized projections of American power trampling blindly through a Korea?

Obviously, the answer is both. Godzilla emerged from the crater America left in Japan by dropping two atomic bombs; the monster’s skin texture in its 1954 debut was influenced by radiation-scarred survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Colossal follows a venerable kaiju tradition, then, in having its mammoth monsters reflect America’s outsized sense of self and influence on the world stage—which often, of course, translates to an outsized ability to damage the world.

The film’s fantasy elements are absurdly specific: two particular people, entering one particular playground, at one particular minute each day, summon monsters half a world away. This invites an allegorical reading rather than an in-universe explanation (indeed, a late flashback to a childhood “origin story” for Gloria and Oscar’s powers is delightfully cryptic). So, when we see two unhappy Americans posturing on a playground and, therefore, toppling buildings on real but invisible foreigners—what are we reminded of?

Our President’s illegal attack on Syria, over-the-top use of the “Mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, and saber rattling toward North Korea remind us uncomfortably of Oscar’s blind stomping on Seoul. Whatever party is ascendant, satire aimed at America’s colossally reckless foreign policy always seems to hit close to home. America’s political establishment was all-too-excited to applaud the bombing of Syria, and one sensed that many commentators were relieved to be once more dealing with the familiar: a President bypassing Congress to bomb the Middle East. But like any addict, America needs to realize that a behavior’s being habitual does not make it normal.

The film’s remotely-piloted kaiju are designed to look fun and toy-like. But Gloria’s growth in the film suggests that taking real responsibility, both as individuals and as nations, means putting away childish things.

Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor of First Things.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Mother of All Monsters"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 21, 2017 @ 11:17 am

I am deeply fond of Mrs Schulman (Ann Hathaway) of her performances. This sounds like a peculiar film. I have little doubt that Mrs. Schulman pulls it off. Though I hope she forgoes roles in which she is the intoxicated black sheep in need of rescue from herself, by herself, anyone else to come that her sense of self.

An immediate reaction, I am fond of my communication with Japanese people and especially students. I remember being coralled one afternoon on the issue of the “A-bomb”. They had heard that I had expressed some doubts about its necessity in ending the war, including the nature of communication concerning surrender.

What they had missed however was this,

“If you start a war with a shot gun, be prepared that the target to respond with a bazooka.”

History is replete with the power politics used by the Japanese based solely on their view as superior beings. And while I certainly have issues with needless US behavior of force, I am going to be very cautious about lecturing from the Japanese on international law and etiquette.

Looking forward to the movie.

#2 Comment By David Naas On April 21, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

There is a remark, which I cannot at the moment recall with precision, to the effect that history repeats itself — first as tragedy, and then as farce.

In 21st Century America, it (history) appears to have the ability to do both at once.

#3 Comment By Mia On April 21, 2017 @ 6:11 pm

The main character sounds incredibly dull, and it’s a bit incomprehensible why the film was set in Seoul since it doesn’t seem to have to do with anything. If the main characters are American, why not have the monster show up in San Francisco, Denver, New York, DC or someplace fun. You know, do something original for once. The thing about fiction is, well, it’s fiction, and you can write a monster coming from darn well near anywhere. I think a lot of people could relate to a monster going after DC, don’t you? Cut, and script rewrite, please!

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 22, 2017 @ 9:42 am

Thanks, Alexi Sargeant, for the “Mother of All Monsters” review which – like so many Eve Tushnet movie reviews in TAC – has persuaded me to see another film that I otherwise would never have seen.

I really appreciated your recent “Pro-Life, Pro-Truth” at First Things, too.

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#5 Comment By Rob G On April 22, 2017 @ 11:12 am

“Godzilla emerged from the crater America left in Japan by dropping two atomic bombs; the monster’s skin texture in its 1954 debut was influenced by radiation-scarred survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Colossal follows a venerable kaiju tradition, then, in having its mammoth monsters reflect America’s outsized sense of self and influence on the world stage”

I’d say that Gojira is much more of an anti-nuclear/anti-war film than an anti-American one. This is demonstrated in the movie by the tortured scientist Serizawa, who has developed a technology that may be able to destroy Godzilla, but is horrified by its potential use as a weapon of war — man’s using it against man.